There aren’t many things that stop horse people in their tracks at a show. But the playing of the national anthem, paired with the presentation of the American flag, is a definite.

At the 2019 WDAA Western Dressage World Championship Show, that patriotic display is even more evocative, as it spotlights an amazing organization that has partnered with WDAA to honor our nation’s veterans.

The American flag is being presented by United States Marine Corp veteran Sgt. Jimmy Welch, who is competing at the World Show aboard an 8-year-old Mustang mare named Little Red Hot. Joining him to present the POW flag was fellow competitor Patti Gruber, riding a 5-year-old mustang gelding named Pearl Harbor.

Jimmy is founder of Veterans R&R (https://veteransrandr.org/), a 501c3 organization in Bull Valley, Illinois, that has as one of its programs Operation Wild Horse, which pairs veterans or their family members with Mustangs. Patti is the Operation Wild Horse program director.

Jimmy says that veterans can have a lot of similarities to the Mustangs – a heightened awareness of surroundings, hypervigilance and the fight or flight instinct. By building a relationship with a wild Mustang, barriers start to fall, trust starts to form and the partnership becomes life-changing for both horse and human.

Veterans who are struggling to reintegrate to society can sometimes shut down, not wanting to interact or talk to others. Jimmy has found a solution to that problem. Horse people love to talk about their horses, and veterans are no exception.

“At big shows or events, you put the horse in a stall and you put the veteran anywhere near it … people are going to ask about the horse. Nobody comes up to ask you how you’re doing; the focus is on the horse. It creates a very safe environment when the horse is present. We’ve watched people that don’t talk, start talking incredibly.”

The program serves about 100 veterans – some of them every day, and others much less often, whatever level the veteran or family member desires.

One of those riders, Army veteran Linda Hicks, was enthusiastic about attending the 2019 Western Dressage World Championship Show, and she called WDAA Executive Director Dini Swanson to get more information.

Dini began asking Linda some friendly questions and learned that she was part of Operation Wild Horse. WDAA had, for quite some time, been wanting to reach out to a veterans organization, so Dini was intrigued and offered to talk with the organization’s leadership.

Jimmy and Patti reached out to her, and the rest is history.

After input from Operation Wild Horse, WDAA now offers an annual Veteran Membership. The cost is $35, which is the same as a general membership, but it comes with a beautiful lapel pin. A Veteran Lifetime Membership costs $500 and comes with a custom belt buckle, engraved with the member’s name and military branch as a gift of appreciation from WDAA.

Jimmy was the first veteran to sign up for the lifetime membership.

“It’s truly because of Dini,” he says. “She was so welcoming to us.”

For more information on the WDAA Veteran Memberships, go to www.westerndressageassociation.org and click on “Join WDAA.”